The Peece woke Steven Spector at 6 am.
“Spector! Tuesday, September 5. Out of the sack. Train to New York at 7:45. Meeting with Repro.com at 9:30.”
Then two minutes of unpleasant, unidentifiable music. Then a repeat of the message. Repeat of music. Repeat of message. Repeat of music.
At 6:15, Steven got out of bed, clicked off the wake-up call and checked the newstream on the Peece screen:
“Prexy Preps Public on Possible Pay Pact. Unions Up Ante”
“Mobster Movie Mayhem Miffs Moms”…
“Stocks Sag, Bonds Bomb, IPOs Iffy.”
As usual, nothing of interest.
What did I expect? he thought. Today’s weather: sunny and mild?
He clicked the Peece to a jazz channel, stepped onto his treadmill, walked at 4.3 mph for 30 minutes. Because it was Tuesday, it was a down-day for the Juice in Fairfield, so there was no Air – just necessities: the Peece, the Dryer, the Gym, the Cooker.
As always, it was hot/humid. He was dripping with sweat.
He stripped, went into the bathroom, opened the door of the Dryer, closed it behind him and pressed “On”.
The Dryer sucked the moisture from the air around him, from his pores, cleaned him, calmed him.
He took a jar of Shave from a shelf on the Dryer wall, rubbed the gel into his face and wiped his beard off with a towel.
When he left the Dryer, he rubbed Breeze all over his naked body. It evaporated slowly, during the next fifteen minutes, cooling his skin as he ate a blueberry muffin and drank orange juice. He sipped iced coffee as he dressed. It was a formal meeting, so he wore a short-sleeved, white shirt, tan slacks, and shoes, not sandals.
At 7:15, he left his bedroom and knocked on the door across the corridor.
“Ready, Marian?” he asked.
Marian Spector, Steven’s wife, opened the door to her bedroom. She was tall, long-boned, slim. Her dark hair was cropped very close. Her eyes were gray and opaque. Her mouth was taut.
He hadn’t seen her in more than a month.
She asked, “Still a good idea?”
“No commitment,” he said. “Just find out: could we, if we wanted to? What are the rules? That’s all. Can’t do it on-line.”
They went to the hall closet and put on their gray slickers and their black rain-boots. He took an umbrella and they left the house.
The damp, shiny streets were almost empty. Long ago, before he was born, most commuting had become telecommuting. Long ago, when it had started to rain everywhere, everytime.
There were explanations: scientists debated, tested, predicted. But explanations don’t matter, unless you can change what happened, or prevent it from happening again. They tried; but there was nothing anyone could do about it.
It rained every day, fiercely sometimes, gently sometimes, sometimes mistily. Every day. Everywhere on earth. No one could see the sun or the moon or the stars any more (except on a Peece screen). Sometimes, there was a bright glow behind the clouds.
The seasons blurred into one hot, endless, rainy summer day. Hot/humid winds. Hot rains.
People moved indoors. They rarely traveled. They vacationed electronically – on the Net. They studied, worked, shopped, visited, entertained themselves – on-line. Manufacturing, farming, transportation were robotized – monitored and controlled on-line. Almost everyone, almost everywhere, rich or poor, had at least one Peece (free, if you couldn’t afford it) and access to the Net (free, if you couldn’t afford it).
To run it all, to maintain it all, Governments took a flat, no-loopholes, 30% bite out of personal and corporate incomes. (Some governments took more.)
Another 10% went to Protex.com – the Hackers’ clan that guaranteed Internet security. (In some places, Protex.com took more.)
We had created a virtual world just in time to take the place of the real one.
The umbrella couldn’t keep them dry. As they walked toward the railroad station, an aggressive, hot, irritating wind stirred up the heavy raindrops and sprayed their faces. In the thick, humid air, they began to sweat; it felt as if the rainwater was splashing against their bodies, even through the slickers.
They didn’t speak to each other.
The Fairfield station was a decaying memory of another time. A handful of passengers waited with them for the first morning train to New York City. (The New Haven Railroad schedule was simple: Two trains in the morning, two at night.)
A shabby steel fossil, five cars long, edged up to the platform and shuddered to a stop. They boarded it cautiously, as if it were a gateway to the past.
But this was a gateway run without engineers or conductors or ticket agents. It was simple stuff for self-monitoring, self-repairing supercomputers, whispering binary messages to the rolling stock. Tickets were bought and charged on the Net, printed out, checked by sensors. No people required. Just 1’s and 0’s, bits and bytes.
Steven and Marian sat in aisle seats across from each other: neither of them wanted to sit near a window and watch the raindrops shatter against the glass and streak it with water.
As they walked from Grand Central Station to the Repro.com office on Madison Avenue, the hot wind pushed ebony clouds across the gray sky and swirled viciously between the dark, half-empty buildings. The rain assaulted Steven and Marian from every direction. He fought to hold onto the umbrella.
Repro.com was on the sixth floor of a narrow, twenty-story, black-glass tower.
They had never been there before.
The reception area was a gray, bare-walled room divided into a dozen cubicles, separated by low, gray partitions. Each cubicle contained two chairs, a table, and a Peece. Three other couples were already working at the Peeces in their cubicles.
When Steven and Marian entered the reception area, a disembodied female voice said, “Cubicle number 4, please,” and the Peece screen in one of the vacant cubicles began to flash the number “4.”
The dense carpet clung to their feet as they walked, as if it was trying to discourage them.
When they sat down in Cubicle 4, the Peece asked them a series of questions: Name? Address? Age? Occupation? Income? Race? Religion? State of health? Date of marriage? Children?
He keyed in all of the answers for both of them until he came to the last item: “ReproReason?”
They looked at each other, dully. They had never discussed a “reason.” Did they have a reason? She had said, “We’re thirty. It’s time for a child.”
Was that a reason?
Marian stared at him opaquely, helplessly, and mouthed the word “reason” without actually saying it, as if it were obscene.
Steven whispered, “Parental instinct?”
She shrugged, nodded.
He keyed it in.
“Parental instinct” looked ridiculous on screen, but the Peece accepted it.
Why do we want a child? he thought. Do we still love each other? We hardly know each other any more. And we’ll never get to know the child.
The Peece screen assigned a room to each of them for the fertility/genetics test.
Steven’s test required a sample of his semen. A large-screen Peece (with HeadSet) offered him a selection of Fantasex. He was tense, almost angry: the Fantasex he chose was cruel. When he came, he felt the tension and the anger dissipate.
The Peece said that they would receive their results on-line in two days.
Steven met Marian in a small waiting room beyond the testing area.
As she approached him, he was reminded of how beautiful she had been. Slim, dark-haired, gray-eyed. He had met her at a Social when they were twenty years old. She was so slender and awkward, with barely discernible breasts and narrow hips, that she had almost seemed like a very pretty boy. But when he danced with her, he felt the soft, warm shell of flesh on her hips. The gentle pressure of her fingers on his shoulder was a soft chain that held him close to her. In the humid warmth of the dance floor, her breath was somehow cool and sweet. And the grayness of her eyes glowed with a heat that he had never felt before.
Now there was no glow.
Now he couldn’t see past her eyes.
Now they were thinking about having a baby.
She said, “Home,” in a tone that was both question and answer.
When they left the building, the rain had almost stopped, but not quite. Steven looked up and down Madison Avenue. There were a few people in the street, wrapped in gray slickers, black-booted, huddled under umbrellas.
He said, “I feel like staying in town. Do you?”
“You take the umbrella,” he said.
Before she left him, Marian hesitated for a moment. Her eyes watched him as if she expected something to happen. The taut line of her mouth softened, and her eyes became almost transparent.
She turned and walked away.
Steven went in the opposite direction, north on Madison Avenue. The rain was only a mist. Invisible drops coated his hair and dampened his face. His feet splashed through murky puddles.
He turned west on 63rd Street. The other gray-slickered pedestrians ignored him, keeping their umbrellas lowered, watching the wet sidewalk. He wondered why they were in New York City.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue, he heard sounds that seemed out of place: music, laughter, shouting. He followed the sounds to a storefront between 64th and 65th Streets.
It was a restaurant. The double doors were wide open. On a stage at the far end of the long, narrow room was a trio of singers. Two of them were playing guitars; one was playing a banjo. A dozen ceiling fans spun noisily overhead. There were twenty or thirty tables scattered around the place, and every chair at every table seemed to be occupied. People stood along the walls, or at the bar, holding drinks or plates of food. Waiters, carrying heavily-loaded trays, dashed in and out of the kitchen, dodging each other at a reckless, almost slapstick velocity. Everyone was talking, singing, shouting, laughing.
Since the days when he had attended Socials, Steven had never seen so many people together in one place. But never in his life had he seen people like these.
They were a crazyquilt of colors and styles. The women wore bright flowered dresses, or long, flowing pastel robes, or short black leather skirts, or baggy silk pants, or sweat suits, or shorts. The men’s wardrobe was just as bizarre, just as varied, just as colorful, and many of them had beards and moustaches. Some (women and men) wore hats, caps, bandanas, earrings, necklaces, amulets, tiaras, bracelets. Some didn’t. Some had long hair, some had short hair, some (women and men) had shaved heads.
What was even more remarkable to Steven was that so many people could endure so much contact – could be so close together, touching each other, side by side, face to face, in that storm of noise and confusion.
Looking at that chaotic crowd, he found himself gasping for air: he opened his mouth wider to suck more air into his lungs.
He turned to escape and almost collided with a young woman who was headed in the opposite direction.
He said, “Sorry,” and tried to pass her, but she moved to block him.
She said, in a hard-edged, but pleasant voice, “Not so fast, my good man. We meet, as if by chance, but who among us can say that it was not Fate – Kismet? – that brought us together.”
She was obviously one of them. She was short and plump. Her long blond hair (which was wet) was streaked with blue and green, and tied back with a red ribbon. She wore purple eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. Huge, gold hoop earrings pierced her lobes, accompanied by rows of diamond studs in the shell of each ear. She wore black, skin-tight jeans and a black sweater, with a multicolored scarf tied around her neck and a matching cape over her shoulders.
He said, “Going home.”
She blocked his path again.
She said, “Not yet, my gray and gloomy friend. For I am not done with thee.”
He started to speak, but didn’t know what to say.
She raised her hand, touched his shoulder and asked, “What drives thee home? A rendezvous with thy true love? I think not. What then? Got the hots to get on-line?”
She laughed and patted his shoulder and added, “There, there, my dear. Be not offended.”
She stepped back, surveyed him head to foot to head, and said, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Winifred Boyle, scholar, poet, musician, performance artist, lover. But you can call me Guinevere.”
“Leodogran, the King of Cameliard,
“Had one fair daughter and none other child.
“And she was fairest of all flesh on earth.
“Guinevere, and in her his one delight.”
She swept her right hand across her body and bowed low to him.
She said, “You don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, do you?”
“I’m… Going home.”
But she was in his way again.
She said, “I would love to get you to say more than those little monosyllabic, computerized grunts. You know, there’s a story about George Bernard Shaw – he was a famous playwright two hundred years ago – a great playwright – but he was like you: he didn’t enjoy talking to people. One day, at a party, a young girl came over to him and said, ‘I just bet my friend that I could get you to say three words.’ And Shaw said, ‘You lose.’”
She laughed. Steven just stared at her.
She asked, “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
He answered automatically, “Steven Spector.”
She laughed: “I lose!” Then she added, “Steven, would you join me for a light repast? I know that this place seems awfully crowded but, as luck would have it, I am the daughter of the proprietor, and I can get us the perfect table, right by the bandstand – just by snapping my fingers.”
She snapped her fingers, as if to prove that she could do it.
She continued: “And the food and drinks are on me – not literally, of course.” Then, eyes narrowed, she added, “Unless you prefer it that way! Come, my darling: come in and taste the rainbow.”
She put her arm through his, turned him around and led him into the restaurant.
She was greeted with shouts and cheers – “All hail Guinevere!”– “’Tis the Queen herself!” – “Your Majesty!” .
A dark, bearded man shouted, “That turkey on your arm doesn’t look like the King, or Lancelot. He looks too Dry!”
Laughter on all sides.
She said, “Nay, nay. Perhaps his outer shell be Dry. But if ye look into his heart and soul, he is as pure – and Wet – as the driven snow. My friends, my boon companions, feast your eyes upon Sir Galahad! And ladies, he hath promised to show me his Holy Grail!”
She found the perfect table by the bandstand, waved the occupants away and sat down with Steven.
She asked, “What wouldst thou drink, my sweet Galahad? Wine, beer, booze, soda, juice, milk. Name it, my dear, and it is thine.”
Although the restaurant was crowded, it was surprisingly cool: the noisy ceiling fans kept the air moving. But Steven felt trapped in a forest of bodies and faces and voices and music and colors. Everything seemed to close in on him.
He said, “Beer.”
“Wouldst thou also like a snackeroo? Sandwich? Salad? Stew?”
She passed the word to a waiter dodging by: “Sam: one beer. And the usual for me.”
She put her hand on his and said, softly, “Steven, try to relax. These are my friends. We’re just having fun.”
She smiled at him and, for the first time, he realized how young she was: nineteen or twenty. And, behind all of that glitter, she was almost pretty.
The waiter brought him a tall stein of beer and gave Guinevere a Manhattan.
She raised her glass and toasted him: “Cheers – and cheer up!”
He repeated, “Cheers,” and drank several mouthfuls of beer. It was deliciously cold and bittersweet.
The trio began to sing a song about a train – “called the City of New Orleans” – and everyone (except Steven) joined them. They sang three more songs that everyone (except Steven) knew. Then the banjo player said that they were “taking a break,” and the trio left the bandstand.
By this time, Steven had finished his beer and ordered a second one.
Guinevere asked, “Where are you from, Galahad?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Would you do me a favor? Would you stop talking like fucking e-mail? See if you can put together a whole sentence. Say, ‘I am an accountant, Guinevere.’ Come on, try it. Repeat after me: ‘I am an Accountant. I am a number-cruncher. I am an asset to my friends, and a liability to my enemies.’”
She laughed. He smiled.
He said, “I am an accountant – Guinevere.”
She raised her eyes to the Heavens and shouted, “Halleluyah! Now hear the word of the Lord! Galahad has spoken an entire, honesttoGod sentence. He even smiled at me!”
She leaned across the table and kissed Steven on the lips, lightly – a friend’s kiss.
She said, “Does this place – all these people – really scare you? Or is it just me?”
“I – we don’t do this kind of thing.”
“I know. Most people don’t.”
“It’s hard for me. I have friends. Colleagues. On-line. Not in the same room.”
“What about your family?”
“I have a wife.”
“No, I mean your parents, sisters, brothers.”
“I know their names. I know what they look like. We’ve been in contact occasionally.”
She touched his face with her hand, stroked his cheek. There were tears in her eyes. She didn’t say anything.
He paused, then said, “We – my wife Marian and I – were in New York City today about having a baby.”
Guinevere ignored what he thought was an important piece of information and said, “Galahad, my apartment is a couple of blocks from here. Come with me there. It’s quiet. I have beer in the refrigerator. Come and talk to me. Will you?”
He shrugged, hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
Her apartment was a huge studio on the top floor of a gray, ten-story concrete building. The shades were drawn. Two ceiling fans spun overhead, and a huge window fan drew the damp air out of the room. It was fairly cool.
The décor was just like her: eclectic, garish, friendly.
When she handed him a glass of beer, she said, “Are you more comfortable here, away from the people and the noise?”
He nodded and asked, “Do you live here alone?”
“Where is your Peece?”
“I don’t have one.” She frowned. “And, Jesus, it isn’t a ‘Peece.’ I hate that word. I don’t have a Personal Computer – a PC.”
“How do you go on-line?”
“I don’t. Not here, anyway. At work, I do.”
“I’m a designer. I do lay-outs for magazines and newsletters.”
“Unfortunately, yes. But I also design books. Real books. A few people still buy them.”
“I read books.”
“No, no, Galahad. I don’t mean pixels on a screen. Or print-outs. I mean books that you hold in your hand.”
She crossed the room, pulled two books from a shelf on the wall, returned to him and put them in his lap. He picked one up.
She said, “Open it.”
She said, “Read the title out loud.”
“The Complete Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve read Poe.”
She said, “Turn the pages. Look at the shapes and sizes of the letters, the way the page numbers are designed, the marbled edges of the paper. Feel the weight of it. That’s a book.”
“Did you design it?”
“No. I wish I had.” She picked up another book from his lap, a small, slim volume with a leather cover. “This one is mine.”
He opened it and read, “As I Pondered in Silence: Selected Poems of Walt Whitman.”
As he turned the pages, he said, “I like the way the paper looks and feels. And I like the little pictures.”
“Whitman said, ‘I celebrate myself.’ Do you celebrate yourself, Steven?”
She didn’t call me ‘Galahad,’ he thought.
He said, “Don’t know what that means.”
“Are you happy to be who you are?”
“Should be. Lately, I’m not sure.”
“Don’t know. Uneasy.”
“Jesus Christ, Steven, you’re talking like a machine again! Say, ‘I don’t know.’”
“Sorry,” he said, then corrected himself: “I’m sorry. Recently, I sometimes get angry, but I don’t know why.”
“Did you talk to your wife about it?”
“She has her life and I have mine. She has her work and I have mine. She has her friends and I have mine.”
“Don’t you talk at breakfast? At dinner?”
“We don’t eat together. Our schedules are different.”
“When do you see her?”
“If I have something to tell her, I send her an e-mail.”
“Don’t you live in the same house?”
“Yes. But she has her space, and I have mine.”
“You don’t sleep together?”
“What about sex?”
“There are already too many people in the world. Fantasex is better than real sex: more variety, more partners, but no babies.”
“Sounds great! Getting head from a HeadSet. Did you ever make love to each other?”
“In the beginning.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes. But Fantasex is better. There are no limits, no pressures: we can do anything we like, without worrying.”
“And if you want to have a baby, that’s a lab job, right?”
“So we can be sure that the baby is healthy.”
“And when do the proud parents get to see this healthy baby? Once a year?”
“Whenever we want to.”
“But the Caregivers bring up the kids, right?”
“They’re trained for that.”
“Do you know who brought me up? My mother and father. Crazy, huh? And that’s not all! They made me by making love! Can you believe it?”
He stood up.
He said, “Now you’re angry. I’m going home.”
She said, “You hate the rain, don’t you, Steven? You hide from it. Your whole goddamn world hides from it. We don’t hide from it. We walk in the rain. We open our mouths and drink it. We clean ourselves in showers of water. We even call ourselves Wets. And we’re proud of that because, to us, wet means ‘free.’ It means we’re not hooked up to that goddamn Net every minute of every day. It means that we make love to people. It means that we live in families.
“Steven, it isn’t raining all the time because some vengeful God is pissed off at us. It’s raining because of something we did – something that screwed up the air and the clouds. And if we did it, we’ve got to live with it, not run away from it. We can’t spend our lives trying to stay Dry. We’ve got to get wet.”
He put on his slicker and his boots.
At home that evening, he searched on-line for information about the “Wets.” He was surprised at how much there was. In a sociology textbook, he read:
The Wets. Contemporary sub-culture of American/Western European society, consisting of approximately 40,000 individuals clustered in highly interactive, urban enclaves (in such cities as New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, Prague, Florence). The Wets are atavistic: they take pleasure in reviving inefficient, obsolete practices, e.g., engaging in direct sexual reproduction, raising their own children, living in extended family groups. They use the Net as infrequently as they can, preferring personal interaction. Although most governments officially disapprove of their behavior, the Wets are tolerated because they provide a variety of valuable services to the economy. Among the Wets are many highly skilled scientists, engineers, programmers, artists, writers, entertainers, inventors. Our political leaders agree that the Wets’ contributions to society outweigh the group’s negative, but minimal, influence on normal citizens, or Drys, as they call us.
As he dug deeper, exploring Wets’ sites, as well as Drys’, Steven began to understand how the Wets had affected his own life, even though they lived on the edges of society. In science, technology, the arts, they had shaped much of the modern world. Because they weren’t in the mainstream, there was no official acknowledgement of their contributions. But, for more than fifty years, they had been well paid for their services, and they had been allowed to live the way they chose – i.e., atavistically.
Steven’s childhood was a typical Dry childhood. He had been raised by Caregivers in a quiet, suburban setting. The City – any city – had little appeal for him. As a child, he played and swam at local parks and beaches. As a teenager, his AgeGroup’s activities included team sports and dancing at the occasional Socials. But his education was solitary: his Peece was his teacher and, usually, his companion: it played music for him, it read to him, it played chess with him, it taught him about sex and, sometimes, it led him to anonymous places where he could explore his darker self.
And all the while, there was another kind of world out there, another kind of people.
I’ve lived every day of my life in ignorance, Steven thought. Just beneath the surface, just around the corner, is another society – intelligent, inventive, artistic – and completely invisible. Is it the only one I’ve missed?
He remembered the restaurant, a Bedlam of noise and shapes and sounds and voices. Even in memory, its images frightened him – the closeness, the intimacy, the raw edges. There were no barriers, no protection.
And no umbrellas.
He crossed the corridor and knocked on Marian’s door. He had to knock again before she heard him.
She looked very tired.
She asked, “Where’d you go today?”
He shrugged and said, “I’d like to have supper with you. Tonight.”
“You’re my wife.”
She said, “I’m tired. Tomorrow, maybe.”
She began to close the door. He blocked it with his arm, then reached in and touched her face with his fingertips. She looked down at his hand, as if it were a stranger.
He said, “Tomorrow, maybe,” and she closed the door.
Two days later, they received an e-mail from Repro.com:
“Re: Steven & Marian Spector
“Fertility: 9+ (1 Lowest, 10 Highest)
”DNA: 8+ (1 Lowest, 10 Highest)
Steven e-mailed Marian: “Congrats. Dinner together at 7 tonight?”
She responded: “OK.”
At 7, they met in their ComRoom – their Common Room – neutral ground where they could spend time together, or entertain guests. There was a couch, two chairs, a dining room table for four and a Cooker in the corner.
Steven opened the Venetian blinds on the window: it looked out at the woods behind the apartment complex. The rain rattled on the glass. The moon glowed weakly behind the clouds.
It was an up-day for the Juice, so the Air was on full force, cooling the apartment.
He prepared dinner: Caesar Salad, Veal Marsala. They finished with her favorite dessert – pecan pie – and coffee. He had selected a Merlot to accompany the meal.
Marian was very quiet. She ate and drank mechanically, without apparent pleasure. She looked out the window, or at her food, but not at Steven.
Finally, when they were finishing their coffee, he asked, “You want a baby, don’t you?”
“Wasn’t that why we went to Repro.com?”
“What aren’t you sure about?”
She looked at him and said, “Everything,” flatly, without expression, but he could see the fear in her eyes.
He said, “Marian, remember the first time we met? Do you?”
She said, “Yes,” without warmth.
“You were the only girl I wanted to dance with, the only girl I wanted to be with.”
Her eyes softened: she was beginning to actually think about that night.
She asked, “Why?”
“You were beautiful. Graceful. Sure of yourself.”
She repeated, “Sure of yourself,” in a tone that mocked the words.
“I never see you any more.”
“I want to see you more.”
“Don’t we still love each other?”
She didn’t answer him.
He stood up, came around the table and reached for her. She stood up and let him embrace her, but she didn’t respond. He kissed her hair, stroked it, held her against him. She rested her hands on his chest, passively.
He said, “I want us to spend time together again, to talk again. Please, Marian. I want to find out if we still love each other.”
For a long minute, she didn’t answer him.
Then she said, “OK.”
“Saturday, I want you to go into the City with me.”
“Yes. There are things to see. People to see.”
The rain splashed against the window. The ghost of the moon glowed in the clouds.
She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed.
In New York City, the Saturday morning rain was virtually windless. The large, clear drops pelted the umbrella but, otherwise, kept their distance. The clouds seemed whiter than usual.
Steven and Marian walked uptown on Fifth Avenue from 43rd Street.
The streets were almost empty.
On the corner of 54th, a huge sign hung on a flagpole over the entrance to a store: “FLEA MARKET! BARGAINS GALORE! MAKE YOUR BEST OFFER!”
He said, “Let’s see what kind of bargains they have.”
“Don’t need anything.”
The interior of the store was a single, very large, high-ceilinged room filled with dozens of tables. From table to table, the merchandise varied: jewelry, gourmet delicacies, books, clothing, paintings and sculptures, hats, scarves, belts, shoes, antique appliances, obsolete Peeces. Handwritten cardboard signs touted the goods and the cut-rate prices, but there was also a steady stream of promotional chatter from the merchants – all of whom were Wets. The customers were a mixed bag of Wets and a few Drys.
Marian said, “Odd-looking people here.”
“Call themselves ‘Wets.’ I met some the last time we were in the City.”
“Looked them up on the Net. Fringe group in some big cities. Don’t live the way we do. Live the way people used to, a hundred years ago.”
“They want to.”
“We let them?”
“Yes. They’re engineers, scientists, artists. Very creative. Very productive. We use what they produce. How they live is up to them.”
“Never knew about them.”
“Had no reason to know. They call us Drys. Not a compliment.”
She studied the Wets more closely, with more interest.
They walked past a table loaded with colorful scarves. He picked one up and asked her, “Like this?”
He held it up alongside her face.
He said, “These colors match yours. I want to buy it for you.”
“Don’t need it.”
“I want you to have it.”
He asked the Wet behind the table, “How much?”
“Eight dollars, mon ami.”
“Can I charge it on-line?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic?”
The question seemed irrelevant, but Steven answered it anyway. “Of course he is.” (Maybe it’s some kind of Wet ritual, he thought.) Then he repeated, “Can I charge the scarf on-line?”
The Wet stared at him for a moment, stroked his thick, blonde beard, muttered, “Mon Dieu!” and produced a laptop. “Just key in your ID and the amount.”
As Steven completed the transaction, the Wet wrapped the scarf in waterproof paper and handed it to Marian.
“Don’t need it,” she said.
The Wet said, “Wear it in good health.”
When they left the Flea Market, they continued north on Fifth Avenue, browsing in a couple of Wet-run art galleries near 59th Street and a second-hand clothing store (with a Wet proprietor) called RetroFit. Steven almost bought a tan coat – the Wet called it a “raincoat” – but he thought it was too expensive.
He said, “Let me try it on again.”
He looked at himself in the full-length mirror. All of his life, he had worn a gray slicker. So had everyone else he knew – all the Drys. The raincoat made him look different. It made him feel different, too. All he needed was a beard, or a bandana, and he would look like a Wet.
Marian said, “I like that. You look handsome.”
Then she blushed, like a thirty-year-old teenager.
He said, “I’ll buy it. And wear it right now. But only if you wear your scarf.”
He asked the clerk to wrap his slicker. He put on the raincoat. Then he unwrapped Marian’s scarf and tried to figure out how to drape it around her neck. It wasn’t easy.
A hard-edged, pleasant voice said, “I’m sorry, Steven, you haven’t got a clue. Let me assist you in this surprisingly romantic endeavor.”
Winifred Boyle appeared from behind a rack of garish clothing, which her own garments outgarished.
She took the scarf from Steven and, with a magical flourish, draped it beautifully around Marian’s neck.
Marian looked back and forth from Steven to Winifred and back again, as if she were watching a tennis match.
Steven said, “Marian, this is Winifred Boyle. We met last week. Winifred, this is my wife, Marian.”
Winifred shook Marian’s hand vigorously, dramatically, and gushed, “Enchanté! My dear Marian, my deardear Marian, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to finally meet you in the flesh! You are all that Steven said you were – and, if I may be so bold, much, much more!”
Marian responded to this avalanche of words with a polite bow of her head, and then she smiled sweetly. (Steven couldn’t remember the last time she had done that.) She was so beautiful. Smiling. Almost relaxed.
The bright colors of the scarf were reflected like tiny rainbows in her gray eyes.
Winifred asked, “Have you made any definite plans for lunch? No? Then please allow me to propose a delicious, inexpensive nosh at a marvelous coffee shop on Lexington Avenue where, as it happens, a bosom buddy of mine – an exceptionally talented composer and pianist – is performing some of her new work today.”
Marian said, “Sounds nice.”
In the street, Winifred walked between them, one arm linked in Steven’s, one in Marian’s. Steven tried, with moderate success, to hold the umbrella over the two women. Fortunately, the rain had dwindled to a light drizzle.
Winifred said, “Marian: Steven told me that he is an accountant. What, pray tell, do you do to make a buck?”
“Statistician. Develop and analyze marketing surveys, opinion surveys.”
“So you, too, like your husband, are a cruncher of numbers. Could anyone doubt the compatibility of such a pair?”
Marian asked, “Your profession?”
“I am a designer of books – a purveyor of shapes and colors and forms – a packager of prose and poetry. Of course, I have dabbled in other arts, as creator and performer: the Drama, the Opera, the Ballet.”
Marian was skeptical: “So young. So many things?”
Winifred laughed and said, “I’ve tried everything. Why not? How else can you discover what you do well?”
The coffee shop, as Steven expected, was crowded and noisy. He put his arm around Marian’s shoulder to shield her; she leaned against him. A tall, red-haired, middle-aged woman in a long, pastel robe waved Winifred over to a table near the front of the shop.
The woman kissed Winifred’s cheek and said, “I saved this spot for you, dear,” and added, politely, “and for your friends.”
Winifred said, “Eleanor Graham, meet Steven and Marian Spector.”
Eleanor shook hands with each of them and said, “I’m going on in a few minutes. I’ll see you later.”
She disappeared into the crowd.
They ordered lunch.
A few minutes later, just after the food and drink had arrived, Eleanor reappeared, sat down at the grand piano, acknowledged the applause of the crowd, and said, “Thank you, friends. This will be the first public performance of five new Etudes and my Sonata in F major.”
She took a long, deep breath, and began to play.
The coffee shop was suddenly silent.
Eleanor’s music was muscular, jagged, unapologetic. As she played, she sometimes hummed along with the music, as if she were singing a wordless aria. Her voice wasn’t a distraction: it added to the intensity of the performance.
The sound of live music was not as clear and pure as the carefully edited, digitally perfect music Steven heard on the Peece. And there was background noise from the street and from the audience in the coffee shop. But he could feel the vibrations of it – the overtones, the dynamics – in a different way: as if his body had become a sounding board.
Marian reached for his hand and grasped it tightly. They looked at each other. She pressed his fingers even harder, then relaxed them and looked back at Eleanor.
After the performance, and several rounds of applause and cheers, Eleanor joined them at the table.
Winifred kissed her enthusiastically and praised her extravagantly.
Marian said, “Wonderful. Really wonderful. Thank you.”
Eleanor kissed her.
Steven said, “That was beautiful.”
Eleanor kissed him, said, “I’m hungry,” and ordered a Hamburger Deluxe and a bottle of wine.
Eleanor said to Marian, “I haven’t seen you and your husband before, have I? You don’t come in to the City much, I guess.”
Winifred said, with comic gravity, “What you see before you, Eleanor, is a Dry couple that is beginning to get Wet.”
Winifred continued, “Even that smile is something new for him. Please note that he bought a raincoat today and now wears it in place of his goddamngray slicker. And, what is more, he purchased a colorful scarf for his lady love – that scarf – which now adorns her throat. I ask you, are these the actions of a Dry?”
Eleanor shook her head.
Winifred said, “I’ve got a feeling in my bones that I’ve got me two new recruits.”
Steven said, “Recruits?”
“I assure you, my dear, I used that word advisedly. Do you think that I latched onto you simply by accident? No, no, my benighted friend. Ditch all that Kismet crap. I seized upon you in order to save your ass and, hopefully, the rest of you, as well. And now, your beloved Marian has been added to my agenda.”
Marian said, “What agenda?”
“To free both of you. From your dry Dry world.”
Marian said, “We are free.”
Winifred patted her cheek, as if she were a child, and answered, “No, you’re not. But you can be.”
She took a sip of wine, leaned back in her chair and said, “Years ago, my father explained it all to me. He said that it wasn’t the endless fucking rain that drove everyone inside – that locked them into the Net – and kept them alone and isolated, watching the world through the screens of their PCs. He said that the rain was only an excuse.
“Long before the rains came, people were becoming more and more interested in themselves and less interested in everyone else. They stopped caring about their neighborhoods, or their families, or the needs of other people. And the new technologies made it ohsomuch easier to feel that way.
“As the Net grew and spread its wings, everything became available on it. You could work at home, see the latest movies, listen to any kind of music, read any book or magazine you wanted to read, travel anywhere in the world, enjoy the most dangerous adventures or the weirdest sex without any risk.
“And of course, when you were on the Net, you could be anybody you wanted to be. You were who you said you were: prettier, younger, sexier, wealthier – you name it. In a chat room, your opinion always mattered. In FantaSex, you were always hot stuff.
“So, as the Net spread, it pushed people further and further apart – but only because they wanted it to.”
She took another sip of wine and continued: “Marriage was still OK: it was a comforting holdover from the past. It made people feel as if things hadn’t changed that much. It also gave them a taste of real sex. And of course, we still needed to have kids, or we’d die out. But families had become too much of a hassle. So they came up with the Overpopulation Shtick: there are too many people in the world, so we have to regulate how many babies are born. And we have to make sure that every one of them is perfect. Enter Repro.com!”
Eleanor applauded politely.
Winifred acknowledged the applause with a bow of her head and continued: “You send your eggs and sperm to a lab, and they take it from there. And you don’t have to be bothered bringing up your offspring. Caregivers do that for you. You know who your kids are, and they know their parents. You see each other once in a while. But it’s the Caregivers who are really their Mamas and Papas – and then the PCs take over. Boom! Another Dry-as-dust generation has been created. There is Peece on earth!”
Winifred paused for a moment, then raised an index finger and said, “But one thing didn’t compute: the Dry life doesn’t produce creativity. It doesn’t produce inventors – artists – innovators. Creative thinking doesn’t grow in isolation. It only happens when people talk to each other, argue, bounce ideas off each other. Enter the Wets!”
Eleanor applauded again.
“The Wets were creative. They had the talents that Dry life never produces. And they knew that they had to be part of a community, so that others could teach them and challenge them. The Dry world needed them. So it let them live outside – in the rain – in families – in communities – in the real world. And the Wets are what keeps everything going – the Net, the trains, the Arts, the Sciences. Without us, the Dry world would dry up.”
She smiled at her turn of phrase.
She continued: “I don’t know how many of us there are. No one does. But there are more of us every day. Because we keep recruiting. Which is what I’m doing right now. Steven. Marian. Come join the party. Get Wet!”
Marian said, “Our jobs. Our careers.”
Winifred said, “No sweat. You can do just what you’re doing today. Right on the Net. But you don’t have to live on the Net. You and Steven can live together, with a whole bunch of people around you – weirdos like me and Eleanor. You can have fun together. You can have sex together. You can make babies and bring them up together.”
Steven said, “We wouldn’t be very good at living that way.”
“Not to worry. We’ll teach you, sweetheart. Maybe someday, if you’re lucky, you two could have a brilliant, gorgeous kid like me!”
Marian smiled and said, “My God!”
Steven said to Winifred, “We’ve got to talk about this. We have to think about this.”
Marian added, “Together.”
Winifred said, “Go, my friends. Talk and think. And be not afraid. Perhaps there are more Wet things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. But we can teach you to dream.”
When Steven and Marian left the coffee shop, it was raining hard again and a gusty wind was blowing. He opened the umbrella. They walked through the shiny streets, her arm locked tightly in his.
Steven said, “I wouldn’t even think about what she said, except for the way I feel lately. Always angry.”
Marian said, “Always afraid.”
“We used to live together, when we first got married. We used to eat together. Make love. We could do it again.”
She repeated the sentence softly: “We could do it again.”
“It wouldn’t be easy to change everything.”
“No. Wouldn’t be easy.”
“You get used to doing what you want, when you want to do it.”
“Live your own life.”
They walked silently for a few minutes. There was a park ahead of them. They walked into it, down a winding path. It was early Autumn and, despite the heat, the trees continued to respond to ancient, seasonal patterns: some of them had begun to lose their leaves.
Steven said, “Do you want to try it, anyway?”
As they moved past a thick stand of trees, they discovered a lake a short distance away. When they reached it, they stood under a massive oak. Its heavy branches and foliage kept the ground under it dry. He lowered the umbrella. They watched a thousand raindrops strike the face of the lake.
Steven said, “The first year of our marriage was wonderful. I remember how I felt. I felt complete.”
“Yes. I did, too.”
“We used to sleep in the same bed and eat all our meals in the ComRoom.”
“And talk and talk.”
“That was allowed, the first year. Then we stopped. Just like that. As if it had never happened.”
“That was what we were supposed to do.”
The raindrops assaulted the lake water. The wind hissed angrily.
Steven said, “I want us to try. I think we should try.”
She looked into his eyes. She put her arms around his neck and kissed his lips.
She said, “I still love you.”
She took the umbrella from him and threw it into the lake. Then she kissed him again, open-mouthed.
She leaned back and said, “You know how I feel now?”
He looked into her eyes and, as the grayness dissolved in the sudden heat, he knew exactly what she meant when she said, “Wet!”
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